Maleficent is cut from the same CG-heavy cloth as the likes of Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman and Oz the Great and Powerful. It’s no surprise either, as Maleficent is helmed by first-time director Robert Stromberg, the man who won Oscars for his art direction on both Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.
Suffice to say that Maleficent is a pretty film, even if the computer effects are somewhat inconsistent. It’s a movie bursting with inventiveness and vivid colour, and is therefore best viewed in regular 2D without the dimming side-effect that comes with wearing 3D glasses. Indeed, the visuals are, overall, a strong point although somewhat unfocused and not reflective of a unique vision; the film looks like it could be set in the same world as Snow White and the Huntsman. Despite the imagination on display it all ends up coming across as a generic fantasy and merely another live-action Disney adaptation, which is all the more disappointing considering Stromberg’s resume.
The tonal issue is indicative of Maleficent’s main problem – it isn’t sure if it wants to be a dark fantasy retelling of the famous Sleeping Beauty storyline or lighter fantasy fare for the whole family. This dilemma gives the film the feel of a preamble, as if the entire thing is an extended prologue for a fresh story that we never actually saw – and complete with intermittent narration (can’t we do away with this cliché yet?). Disney shouldn’t be afraid to take more risks and move these stories more than just a half-step away from what we know. There’s great potential for something that’s new and exciting but it remains, sadly, untapped.
There are some twists of course, but they are few and not particularly surprising. Maleficent, played by a scenery-chewing Angelina Jolie, was the villain in the classic story but here she’s more of a tragic figure who’s both hero and villain. Jolie leaps forward from the screen with her sparkling white teeth, bringing real depth to the vengeful fairy who curses the innocent daughter of King Stefan (an unhinged but underutilised Sharlto Copley) in retribution for his betrayal (which I won’t spoil here).
Elle Fanning is the cursed Princess Aurora, and it’s her relationship with Maleficent that gives the story its emotional core. The rest of the cast is almost non-existent however, and the production is hamstrung from going certain places by its family-friendly mandate. When the computer-generated dragon finally rears its head, there’s a collective ‘so what? – Smaug has forevermore undermined all other flying furnaces and winged beasts! Ultimately, Jolie’s performance and the production’s bloated budget are enough to make Maleficent worth a watch, albeit not for full price – a big fat juicy burger it is not!